SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah's state epidemiologist is warning leaders that a rapid spread of the coronavirus could force hospitals to run out of intensive care beds next month and may require reinstating some restrictions that were lifted in May, according to a memo released Monday.
The state's surge in cases that has more than doubled daily case counts and increased the infection rate two-fold started 12 days after Republican Gov. Gary Herbert lifted restrictions for some businesses to reopen on May 15, epidemiologist Angela Dunn said in a memo sent Friday to Herbert and other leaders overseeing the COVID-19 response.
"We are quickly getting to a point where the only viable option to manage spread and deaths will be a complete shutdown," Dunn wrote in a memo released by the Utah Department of Health. "This might be our last chance for course correction. Contact tracing and testing alone will not control this outbreak."
Dunn recommended that the state reimpose some restrictions on businesses and group gatherings unless the state lowers it's weekly average to 200 cases per day by July 1.
The state has averaged 471 cases per day over the last week following a steady increase in positive rates over the last month, state figures show.
Herbert's office said in a statement that Herbert shares Dunn's concerns about the increased spread. Her memo was prepared for the leadership team to evaluate this week how to handle the surge, Herbert's office said in a statement. Dunn will be part of those meetings.
"Our plan will only be as successful as the willingness of people to protect themselves and their loved ones from the spread of the virus by following our common sense guidelines for social distancing, good hand hygiene and especially the use of face coverings," Herbert said in the statement.
Herbert has repeatedly urged state residents to practice social distancing and wear masks, but has stopped short of requiring face coverings.
He's pointed to his decision to gradually lift restrictions allowing restaurants, gyms, pools and salons to reopen as a key reason why Utah has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. Herbert has said the state can begin to recover economically without risking people's health.
The surge in cases isn't being driven by any major outbreak or attributed to more testing alone, leading Dunn to determine community spread is rising.
Three major hospital companies have told state health officials they will run out of intensive care beds in four to eight weeks if the trends hold, Dunn wrote.
All of Utah except the capital city of Salt Lake City are in what the state calls "low-risk yellow" or "new normal green" categories under a system developed by Utah leaders and used by Herbert to gradually reopen during the pandemic. Dunn said in the memo the colors associated with the categories are a key part of messaging that residents react to.
She said the entire state should go back to "moderate risk orange" like Salt Lake City if the case counts don't drop to 200 a day by July 1.
"Utahns care about these colors," Dunn said. "They change their actions based on them."